Addicted to shopping

Originally Published: January 28, 2000 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: May 4, 2007
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Dear Alice,

My mother is addicted to TV home shopping. Are there any sites on the web that would provide some information on the diagnosis of this type of addiction?


Dear Reader,

Just about anywhere we go these days, billboards, commercials, and on-line banners invite us to spend money on things we probably don't really need. It would seem our society is filled with shopaholics — people shopping 'til they drop and having a great time doing it. While most people are able to manage their consumer impulses in a healthy way, there are many, like your mother, who are actually addicted to shopping.

Shopping addiction is also known as compulsive shopping, compulsive buying, or compulsive spending, and this condition also has a scientific term: oniomania. It has historically been overlooked as a true disorder, especially by the marketing field, although some estimate that as much as 10 percent of the population compulsively buys and overspends. There are still questions about whether people who shop and buy excessively are addicted to it, as one might be to alcohol, or if the behavior is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or an impulse-control disorder, like binge eating disorder or kleptomania.

In any case, there are a number of signs to look out for in identifying whether or not your mother truly is having trouble controlling her TV shopping:

  • Does she experience a sense of excitement and an elevated mood while shopping?
  • Do people close to her express concern for the amount of time she spends shopping, or the amount of money she spends?
  • Does she find herself shopping, even though she doesn't want to or has vowed not to?
  • Does her buying cause debt or financial difficulties?

Compulsive shoppers usually experience a feeling of exhilaration, even euphoria, while shopping, followed by guilt, anger, or sadness. Often they leave items in their original packaging, unused, piling up in closets and other hidden corners. Some perpetually return items or get rid of them in some other way.

There are a number of possible reasons why your mother is addicted to TV shopping. One possibility, supported by recent research being conducted in England, is that people (most often women) shop in an attempt to pump up their self-esteem — buying things that they think will make them seem more prosperous, more glamorous, more intelligent... whatever. Another possibility is that your mother uses shopping as a cure for loneliness, sadness, or anger. In fact, the correlation between clinical depression and compulsive shopping is strong, and anti-depressant medications have been successful in treating many cases, in combination with therapy and/or self-help groups.

If your mother continually browses the merchandise on TV, but doesn't actually buy that much, there may be some other explanations. She may be avoiding tasks, feelings, or responsibilities that she would rather not attend to, or may be seeking a sense of companionship if she spends long hours alone all the time.

The first thing to do is to talk with your mother about your concerns. Tell her what you've noticed, and why it worries you. For example, "Mom, I've noticed you've ordered a lot of gadgets on TV lately. I'm worried because I know you have a limited budget, and you seem to be having difficulty managing your money." It's certainly possible that your mother will deny shopping excessively. It's important that you be sensitive to the fact that she probably feels embarrassed, and perhaps guilty, about her behavior. However, you can also be persistent, offering support, checking out resources, and helping her find assistance. You may want to suggest what some shopping addicts have found helpful: distracting themselves with other activities, restricting their shopping to when they are with other people, or destroying all of their credit cards except one — which is only to be used for emergencies.

You and your mother are more likely to find help in the form of in-person assistance than over the web. There are self-help groups all over the country for compulsive shoppers, as well as therapists and counselors who can help. You can ask your family health care provider to make a referral, or try the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Association of Social Workers, Inc., university hospital or community mental health clinics, or sliding scale not-for-profit therapy centers (look in the phone book for listings in your area). You can also contact an organization like Debtors Anonymous.

You may also want to browse the psychology, money management, or self-help sections of your local bookstore, where you will find a number of books that have been written on compulsive shopping, chronic debt, and other related issues. If your mother's shopping has caused severe credit debt or other financial difficulties, you can contact an organization with professional financial counselors who can help her develop a plan for paying back the money she owes. One to try is the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which represents a network of not-for-profit agencies providing such help, as well as many other financial services.

Good luck,